Two weeks ago, in the midst of the impeachment hearings, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told a CNN reporter that his country is “tired of Burisma”—the Ukrainian energy company whose board Hunter Biden served on. This may have been something of an understatement. For many of the people in Ukraine, exhaustion is a recurring theme.
The Ukrainian people are tired of being in the middle of an American political melodrama. Ukrainian media are tired of having to cover whatever Trump has been up to or tweeted out, rather than domestic concerns of far greater interest, like their nation’s five-year war with Russia that has already killed 13,000 people, with more dying nearly every day.
The Ukrainian people are also tired of the rampant corruption that Zelensky has promised to end. The drama involving the United States is a distraction from that goal.
There are signs of fatigue in the international support Ukraine relies on. Since 2014, the Europen Union has supported sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, but cracks are beginning to show: President Emmanuel Macron of France is the latest to lead the calls for rapprochement with Russia.
The Ukrainian people are tired of being in the middle of an American political melodrama.
All in all, this is definitely not the position Zelensky wanted to find himself in when he was elected as president in April with 73 percent of the vote. Like Trump, Zelensky came into the presidency as an outsider with a TV background. He was an actor, most famous for playing a school teacher who becomes president after a YouTube video of his anti-corruption classroom rant goes viral. A few years later, Zelensky’s on-screen role became his real-life profession, giving new meaning to the phrase, “life imitates art.”
Though Zelensky’s freshness was appealing to the public, it could be read as political naivety. He’s made several missteps as he finds his feet in government, and in just a few months he has seen his approval rating sink from 73 percent to 52 percent. Now he finds himself, like the country he leads, at a crossroads.
As the leader of a large and independent nation, Zelensky cannot be seen as showing weakness by kowtowing to Trump, who withheld vital aid to force him to investigate a political rival. Equally, he cannot afford to get on the wrong side of Trump, nor pick a side in America’s increasingly polarized political landscape.
To end the war with Russia that has cost so much, a war Ukraine cannot win militarily, Zelensky must reach an agreement with Russian President Vladamir Putin, but he cannot be seen capitulating or crossing any red line that the Ukrainian electorate would not accept. So many rocks, so many hard places.
Both Trump and Zelensky misread the situation in negotiations over a White House visit for Zelensky, which would burnish his image internationally and domestically.
Zelensky miscalculated if he thought the usual flattery would be enough to get past Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Putin and his determination to rewrite the history of Russia’s election interference in the 2016 election. Trump, in turn, completely failed to understand Ukraine’s position and its strategic importance to the United States. He just saw Zelensky as an easy mark.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, in an interview with the BBC, talked of the danger of Ukraine becoming “a bargaining chip” in someone else’s game. This is why there has been no official comment from Kyiv since Zelensky’s joint appearance with Trump, when he was pressured into saying he had not been pressured regarding Burisma. This is a game the Ukraine government knows it cannot win, and desperately wants to avoid.
Prystaiko confirmed the Ukraine government’s official position regarding any investigation: “We will investigate all cases of violations of the law. There are official channels, prosecutors, let them communicate. It is signed in our agreements on mutual legal assistance.”
But for investigations to proceed, the U.S. Department of Justice would have to turn over credible evidence, rather than just conspiracy theories originating in Russian intelligence. There is no doubt that Burisma was a corrupt player in Ukraine’s gas industry before the revolution of 2014, under the reign of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
However, it has done much to clean itself up in the years following the downfall of the Yanukovych government under which it thrived. Part of this process is what Kyiv-based journalist Paul Niland calls “reputation laundering.” This is where companies who have cleaned up their management structures and operational practices invite respected names onto the board.
This is a fairly normal practice in Ukraine, where many organizations are going through a similar process. Niland notes that Burisma added several others to its board at around the same time and for the same purpose as Hunter Biden, including former President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski.
“The worst Hunter Biden can be accused of is stupidity,” Niland tells us in an interview.” He should have known how this would look.”
The truth is that despite the efforts of Trump and others to defame him, Joe Biden’s stock is very high in Ukraine. He was a vocal supporter of Maidan demonstrators asking for an end to the Yanukovych kleptocracy. Niland tells us, “Much of what has been achieved in Ukraine has been at the insistence of international organizations. One of the most important steps was the ousting of [corrupt Prosecutor General] Viktor Shokin.”
This is the ousting that Joe Biden, as U.S. Vice President, supported, not for the reasons Trump’s defenders allege—that Shokin was investigating wrongdoing by Burisma—but because he was turning a blind eye to Ukrainian corruption in general.
Being in the middle of American political crisis does have some positives for Ukraine. Because Trump was caught so clearly extorting Ukraine, he had no option but to immediately release the funds that Congress had approved. Now he has little room to maneuver in interfering again. Support for Ukraine in Congress and the Senate has always been overwhelming. The United States can now go back to a single policy line of bipartisan support for Ukraine.
The downside is that Ukraine continues to burnish an international reputation as a hotbed of corruption. Indeed, the GOP’s main defense in the impeachment hearings is that corruption in Ukraine is so “endemic” that withholding aid was the only responsible thing to do. As with all conspiracy theories, it begins with a germ of truth. Yanukovych and his clan of gangsters plundered an astronomical amount of public money, and the whole system was set up to facilitate corruption at all levels.
But since the 2014 revolution, Ukraine has taken significant steps to combat corruption. As Niland sees it, “The pace of progress over the last five years has been astonishing.” Ukraine has moved from 144th in Transparency International’s Corruption Index in 2013 to 120th place in 2018. This is real progress, but 120th is still very high, showing that much more needs to be done, particularly in reforming the judiciary.
So this is the tightrope that Zelensky is walking. The revolution of 2014 brought forth a huge public demand for change, modernization, and cleaning up a system still mired in post-Soviet corruption. Zelensky has been handed a historic opportunity. But he risks losing the opportunity if he cannot retain the optimism that swept him to power.
Ukraine needs to show that 2014’s Revolution of Dignity, as it has been called, will be the one that finally delivers the modern democratic European state that its people desire.
This dream is now facing very real dangers. We are reminded of a well-known Ukrainian saying that there is only one sure thing about Ukraine: It will never miss a chance to miss a chance.
But perhaps this time the chance can be taken. It is now six years since the start of the Revolution of Dignity. People have not forgotten and will not let go of the sacrifices made to rid themselves of a corrupt regime which remains fresh in the memory of the Ukrainian people.
As political commentator Vladimir Pavlyv told us, “If the crack between the U.S. and the E.U. continues to deepen, and if the Ukrainians are unable to determine their priorities, then we have every chance of falling to the bottom of civilization. And Ukrainians know very well that they speak Russian there.”